Jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie performing at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1967 (AP Photo / Frank C. Curtin)
It was Dizzy Gillespie's talent and innovative style that placed him in the ranks of the all-time greatest jazz musicians… but his distinctive look didn't hurt. The bulging cheeks are essential to Gillespie's image – even people who have never heard his music are likely to recognize a photo of him. And then there was his trumpet with its bell bent upward at a 45-degree angle.
So what was the story with Dizzy’s horn? According to Gillespie, things got a little rowdy at a 1953 birthday party for his wife, and a pair of dancers fell on the instrument. Out of necessity, Gillespie finished the night's performance with the damaged instrument… and he found that he liked the sound the banged-up trumpet created. He had it straightened the next day, but he couldn't forget the bent horn's tone. So he commissioned a reproduction of the damaged trumpet, and that was what he played for the rest of his career.
After Gillespie died, 20 years ago today, his biographer challenged his version of the story. Alyn Shipton writes in 2001's Groovin' High: The Life of Dizzy Gillespie that Gillespie probably saw and played a similar instrument in 1937 while touring in England. According to this version of events, though Gillespie liked the bent horn, he didn't get around to commissioning his own copy for more than 15 years, playing run-of-the-mill trumpets even though he knew the one that would define his sound was out there.
So, do we believe Gillespie's own colorful tale, or the more pragmatic story from his biography? The truth is lost to history, but we have to admit that we love a good yarn. Our money is on the wild party and the happy accident… but either way, Dizzy Gillespie truly made his bent trumpet sing.
Written by Linnea Crowther